Remember when nerd Todd (Bill Murray) would get his girlfriend Lisa (Gilda Radner) in a headlock and give her a noogie on “Saturday Night Live”? You couldn’t help but smile. Well, visiting Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids (gildasclubgr.org), a cancer and grief support community named after Radner, who died of ovarian cancer, has that same effect.
Pull up the winding driveway to Gilda’s Club and as you get out of your car, listen to the birds singing in the tree canopy. As you near the clubhouse entrance, hear the fountain tumble water onto the pond’s surface and stop to smell the surrounding herb bed. Already you start to feel better.
“That’s what this place is all about,” says John Brott, the Club’s facilities director, as he sweeps his arm toward the fountain and other gardens. “The concept behind Gilda’s Club is to feel like you’ve come to your best friend’s house. No need to pretend, just come as you are.” Brott points to an evergreen tree near the entrance that isn’t doing well. “Our gardens aren’t perfect, neither is life. We show people how to care for plants, and by doing that they can start to care for themselves.” It’s gardening as metaphor…by bringing plants that are hurting back to life you can learn how to bring parts of yourself that are hurting back to life. “Healing is all about getting the body, mind and spirit together,” Brott explains.
Gilda’s Club offers 200 free programs to the 650 people who come through each week, serving 15,000 people every year. There are 22 full-time staff with over 800 volunteers. “We strive to be community owned and driven. We survive completely on donations, serving people from 30 different counties. The clubhouse is 15,000 square feet, and the organization spent $1 million renovating the 120 year-old house when they bought the property 13 years ago.
“When we started to install our gardens about five years ago, we wanted them to be an extension of the clubhouse. We have 11 garden areas on six acres,” Brott adds. In addition to the entrance pond, the grounds include a labyrinth, living wall, orchard, and the following types of gardens: rain, kids, evergreen, waterfall, butterfly and berry, plus a raised-bed teaching garden.
Brott, with a background in landscaping, had three goals when he planned the gardens: they would be for people of all ages, used to teach gardening skills, and reflect the club’s multicultural members. He also wanted to provide a variety of outdoor spaces where people could find comfort. Some people are drawn to the soothing sounds of the waterfall garden, others find solace in the quiet of the multi-textured evergreen garden. For those coming off chemotherapy, there is a brightly flowered area with a bench just a few steps from the parking lot. In this spot, Brott was insistent about keeping the large, dead, oak tree silhouetted against the cool green woodland garden. He drilled holes in the bare limbs to attract woodpeckers and sapsuckers…yet another metaphor for life taking on new forms after death.
To create your own healing garden, he recommends making a list of four to six core plants that make you feel happy and centered. For example, choose your grandfather’s hollyhocks or lavender because you love the scent, or the yellow roses your mother cherished. Then ponder what you want to do in your garden: meditate, get lost in a variety of plants (like one woman who created an English country garden with different plants reminding her of people in her life) or, be inundated with scents by adding herbs and scented flowers. Brott advises Club members on creating their own gardens by helping with plant selection and instruction on gardening basics.
A healing garden can be as small as a container of favorite annuals, or large enough to sit in. Chemo treatment or getting the news that you have cancer, or losing a loved one to it, can be devastating, and Gilda’s Club and gardens helps you find your way through these tough times.
Rita Henehan is an author, freelance writer and photographer. Visit her website at michigangardenerscompanion.com for more information on healing gardens.